Leaning In and Pushing Forward: Incoming President Shirley M. Collado Shares Her Story (Part 1)

By Jennifer Campbell, March 1, 2017

Incoming President Shirley M. Collado Shares Her Story (Part 1)

On February 22, 2017, Shirley M. Collado was announced as Ithaca College’s ninth president. Collado visited campus all day, delivering remarks at three open events and visiting campus groups with her husband, acclaimed poet A. Van Jordan.

Throughout the day, Collado shared reflections on her personal story, her leadership philosophy, and what drew her to Ithaca College. I spoke with her at greater length about these subjects following her introduction to campus.

This is part one of our two-part interview in which Collado discusses the way her personal and educational paths have shaped her career and her approach to leadership. The second part will delve deeper into some of her signature strategic achievements, views on key issues facing higher education, and what she sees as Ithaca College’s most compelling strengths and opportunities.

In your introduction to the campus community, you spoke about the ways your upbringing shaped your career. Can you tell more about that?

I was born in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and my parents are from the Dominican Republic. We were a very traditional Dominican Catholic household. I was the firstborn, the only girl, and a big sister to two brothers, whom I raised.

My parents and grandparents were incredibly courageous and hard-working. My father had a fourth-grade education, and he was very proud to run his own business. He drove a yellow cab in New York City for over 30 years. I grew up seeing his hard work—driving people around six days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. His cab was spotless.

And my mother, who completed high school before emigrating from the Dominican Republic, worked in a factory—the same one her mother and sister worked in when they arrived in the U.S.

Her mother—my grandmother, Elisa—had been a nun in the Dominican Republic. She entered the convent at 16, and, when she was 34, she left the convent years later because she fell in love with my grandfather. She married him at age 39 and they had an incredible love, but their marriage only lasted 11 years. He died of a massive heart attack, when my mother was 11 and her sister was 9. So, suddenly, this woman who was raised in a convent and had very little time as a wife with two girls had to figure out how to survive. She made the heart-wrenching decision to leave her two daughters in the Dominican Republic to build a life for them in the U.S.

Eight years later, after a lot of hard work as a seamstress, she brought her girls to the U.S. She spoke no English the entire time she lived in New York City. And yet she was a community activist, a mobilizer for immigrant rights. She helped individuals who came to New York City just like she had, who desperately needed help to survive and move forward in America.

My own household was very traditional. It had a big impact on me to see this, my brave grandmother, being unapologetically herself and letting nothing get in her way. That kind of presence was very uncommon for a woman, an immigrant woman, a Catholic woman, a Dominican woman, with very little education.

Finding opportunities in spaces that were foreign to me, finding allies in a community, and figuring out how to be multilingual, intercultural, and always being fully who I am—I absorbed those things from my whole family but especially from my grandmother.

Had you considered college before you became a Posse Scholar?

I always knew I’d go to college, and my parents set my education as a central goal, but I never once considered “going away to college” in the cards for me. My plan was to go to the City University of New York, so I could continue to help take care of my family while I went to school. I had a lot of adult responsibility from a young age. I contributed to my family’s income all through middle school and high school by working in a local pharmacy, stocking shelves and working the cash register. I was raising my brothers. I was helping my parents maintain the household. I was also helping navigate processes, systems, and cultural barriers in a country that was foreign to them.

So, the idea of leaving home not only presented something culturally foreign, but it would have presented a financial stressor, too. Even today, many children of immigrants, and many first-generation students with a lower socioeconomic status, don’t think it’s realistic to leave their household for college.

How did Posse change that set of expectations?

I was in the very first cohort of Posse Scholars in 1989. Vanderbilt University was the first institution to take part in what The Posse Foundation was trying to do, and it was basically an experiment.

The scholarship that Vanderbilt awarded me through the Posse program gave my parents and me peace of mind that I could go off to college without creating financial hardship for the family. And, it gave me a surrogate family—a cohort, a network—to rely on when I was away.

There were three of us who could not afford to fly to Nashville, Tennessee, and back. So, all five Posse Scholars and five Posse mothers decided to get on a Greyhound bus at the Port Authority in New York City and ride 26 hours one way to Nashville, to be dropped off at Vanderbilt without any of us even having seen the campus before. And then the moms got back on the bus and rode all the way back.

We five Posse Scholars mentored and supported each other academically, personally, and socially. The power of mentors, of a network, of having people who arrive with you and remain there with you along the way, has been a foundational concept I’ve taken with me throughout my career.

In my work in academic leadership, I’ve always remained mindful of that 26-hour bus ride and what it represents in American higher education. I have constantly asked myself, Who gets to get on the bus? Who gets the opportunity to take that leap of faith, that courageous ride that is college? And I am mindful of the other, equally important questions that go along with it: Once you get on that bus, who is there alongside you? Who is that “family,” that home base when you don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side, that helps you through all the highs and lows?

Is this why so many of your strategic initiatives have been rooted in the idea of creating cohorts to support success?

Absolutely. No one can go it alone. And, of course, this isn’t only true for people who have had less access to opportunity. This same principle is true for any student, and for faculty and staff, too. How can everyone be part of a network that supports their potential and whose potential they also support? Some people arrive on a campus with those networks already in place, and some do not.

We’re pretty accustomed to talking about “access” to college: about identifying talented students and helping them afford the financial cost of college. But a focus on access has to be coupled with a focus on success. Even at prestigious institutions with lots of resources, many students don’t arrive with the social capital that one develops as part of a network. So, they don’t necessarily know how to take advantage of all the opportunities they have. They may not even be able to see what all those opportunities are. What happens when we have a variety of lived experiences in an educational environment? Everyone needs to have connections and networks to help them navigate—in college and after college, too.

I’m a firm believer in mobilizing individuals to create community across all sorts of categories and create spaces that haven’t existed before. And, I believe that colleges and universities, especially residential ones like Ithaca, are particularly poised to reimagine what a high-performing, highly supportive learning community looks like—one that enables everyone to thrive and succeed on campus and in the rest of their lives.

What about residential colleges makes them so well suited to this kind of work?

Colleges are spaces where everyone is intentional about gathering to learn. That’s amplified on residential campuses because community forms so tightly. Social, extracurricular, academic, and professional lives overlap. Many academic communities talk about the development of the life of the mind, but I feel strongly that the best ones go beyond that: you get to live in the community that you have chosen, and that has chosen you, and you’re there with intergenerational groups of faculty and staff and students and community stakeholders who have deliberately come together to stretch, learn, improve, experiment, and go beyond their usual disciplines, jobs, or identity groups to overcome obstacles together.

You mentioned in your introductory remarks to the campus community that your personal and professional life has been shaped by some obstacles you’ve overcome, including personal loss. Can you tell more about that?

At Vanderbilt, I had built-in support to help me navigate a foreign place. When I went off to Duke to pursue my M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology, it was another foreign place, but this time I had no cohort, no sense of a home base. I was the only person of color in my class and the only Latina or Hispanic student in my entire department. It was incredibly isolating. And, at the time, I was the only one pursuing my research interest at Duke. So graduate school was incredibly lonely and hard.

Then I started working with Professor Susan Roth, a renowned trauma specialist. She became my academic mentor and confidante, and a core part of my growth at Duke. My saving grace was that I became a graduate scholar-in-residence, living alongside and developing a cohort of undergraduates in a residential community focused on community engagement. I also became the advisor to the organization for Latinx students called “Mi Gente” (“My People”), and we created spaces that had not previously existed for students like us. And I also got very involved in what was happening locally in Durham, doing community-based action research. Basically, I learned how to create a community in graduate school, and doing so enabled me to thrive there and earn my M.A. and Ph.D.

About a year after I completed my Ph.D., which was about 17 years ago, my life was shaped by a traumatic loss. I lost my husband. I married young, and my husband tragically committed suicide almost three years into our marriage. He was my best friend, and he had a bright future ahead of him. Losing him was one of the most formative experiences of my life. 

I was working as a trauma therapist and learning about urban mental health systems. I was working mostly with women and youth suffering great pain due to serious mental health issues. I loved the work and felt I was making a difference in the lives of people who are often forgotten and not seen as whole people. And then, suddenly, my husband was gone because of his own pain. I was devastated. With everything I was facing, I was unable to work, so I took a leave of absence to deal with my grief.

Around this time, one of my former patients who struggled with significant psychological disorders and had been in and out of treatment sought me out for help. She didn’t have anywhere to go, and I went out of my way to help her. But it backfired when I decided I wasn’t in a position to help her after all and that I needed to focus on getting through my grief. She ended up making claims against me. Unfortunately, this is the risk that many therapists and practitioners face when working with trauma patients or individuals challenged by serious psychological disorders. I fought the claims for a while, but I didn’t have the resources, social capital, or the wherewithal to keep going. I was in my 20s, and I had just tragically lost my husband, so I decided to take steps to end the legal action so that I could focus on taking care of myself and moving on with my life. It was a very difficult decision, but it’s the kind of decision that young people face daily when they feel they have no options, no resources, and no outside support. 

That experience was very painful for me but also formative. It could have been an overwhelming setback. It certainly was one of the darkest periods of my life. But, over time, it actually helped sharpen my sense of humanity and empathy, and my desire to help people during vulnerable moments in their lives. When I work with students going through hardships, difficult decisions, losses, or trauma, I have a personal lens that is informed by my own humanity and the amazing ability that human beings have to push forward, grow, and transcend their most painful moments in life.

Because of this difficult period, starting with my isolation in graduate school, the loss of my husband, and the painful moment in my first job as a therapist, I learned to aspire to what I call “authentic leadership,” in which we use not only our strengths and achievements but also our flaws, setbacks, and mistakes to improve the lives of others.

Authentic leadership is what I have aspired to throughout my personal and professional journey—to lean in, even in the face of difficulty, and collaborate with my colleagues and students to do difficult but rewarding work in higher education, guided by a strong vision and the courage to push forward. That is what I hope to bring to Ithaca College. 

In addition to authenticity in your approach to leadership, what else would you want to share about your leadership method and values?

To do the complicated things required in higher education today, we need a lot of courage. And courage, for me, does not mean the absence of fear. It means leading with integrity, humanity, and empathy, and being a full person.

In fact, one of the major reasons that I started the BOLD Women's Leadership Network is because I wanted to develop an intergenerational network that encourages talented college women to be authentic, be courageous, and have vision as they negotiate spaces inside and outside higher education as their true selves. I wanted to create a network where young women from all walks of life could thrive as they lean in to difficult conversations across identities and encourage one another to be engaged citizens in the world. These things are just deeply important to me.

In terms of my own leadership values, I’d say that I’m not a leader who lets grass grow underneath her feet. I like to get things done. I am not afraid to make decisions. But I place a high value on collaboration. I constantly seek that balance between gathering input and building consensus, and moving things forward. Every vision I’ve had has been made better when informed by a community. I’ve been in numerous situations in my life where I’ve been the only voice in a room about a particular issue. So I know why you need to have different voices around the table. I like to think that I create an environment where people can show up as who they really are and have the courage to share what they’re really thinking to help shape a collective vision.

Does this approach also show up in your expectations of how others should lead?  

Definitely. I am not a fan of people staying in their lanes and just thinking about their own specialty. One of the short-sighted traits of higher education is that people tend to be so hyper-specialized that they don’t understand the full life of a complex organism like a college or university. I think we have a chance to change that at IC and be a model for others.

I will ask all the leaders at IC—vice presidents, deans, department heads, managers, everyone who has a role in shaping the college—to collaboratively blend their expertise with others. So, for instance, I’d want the head of finance and administration to deeply understand the student life experience and perhaps work directly on initiatives with people in those areas. I would want a provost to deeply understand the value of college advancement, or the aspects of campus life they don’t necessarily get to see every day if they’re focused on academic initiatives. That is what students need, and that is what students should expect of us.

I feel strongly that student-centered decision making is where I make my best decisions. That is not giving students everything they want. It means setting priorities and making decisions while trying to create an inclusive, rigorous, enriching, amazing experience for students who trust us to help them develop themselves for whatever comes after college. If that’s what informs our everyday decisions, we all end up being better. And we have to understand what each other does in order to be good at this because colleges are complex. Problems and solutions are complex. 

I would imagine that this approach also helps combat distrust that stems from simply not knowing what your neighbors are doing or how they are doing it.

That’s right. Cross-fertilization allows a culture shift in building community. People start taking more risks because they understand each other’s areas more deeply. They build empathy for others. Things are more open and transparent. There isn’t a sense of one area being better than another area, but rather, of all those things being valuable. And then, when we have to make tough decisions together, everyone also understands the complexities and the tradeoffs.

Outside work, what are your favorite hobbies or interests?

I love hiking. One of my favorite places to visit is Sedona, Arizona. Van and I got married there. The hiking there and the red rocks are simply amazing, and I appreciate the deep sense of time that you can experience there. Thanks to my time in Vermont, I also love snowshoeing and cross-country skiing—things I’m really looking forward to doing again in Ithaca.

And, of course, I’m married to a poet, so Van and I enjoy reading together. He’s always bringing great works of writing into my life, and one of our favorite things to do is to read books and poems together.  We are also big moviegoers and fans of the theatre and the arts.  

One final question for our community: do you have a hidden talent or skill that you’d want us to know about?

In high school I was part of a youth repertoire company with the City Kids Foundation. I got to appear on the Phil Donahue Show with Herbie Hancock and a group of City Kids. I also performed for a major City Kids Foundation fundraiser at the St. James Theatre on Broadway in New York City. So I love the theatre, and I also did that as part of The Original Cast at Vanderbilt. Now, I can’t say I’m a very good actress or talented singer, so I don’t think you’ll be seeing me on any of IC’s stages. But I do love the arts and being creative. I’m excited to join a community that has so much to offer in music and theater!